In Jesuit communities and works this year May 2021 marked the start of the Year of St Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius’ conversion story began with the stray cannonball that broke his leg. From that followed 20 years of adventure: filled with wandering, searching, gathering like-minded people, responding to unanticipated events, and coming to a climax in the foundation of the Society of Jesus.
Most summaries of St Ignatius’ life leave off there, giving a sentence or two to the next 15 years of his life. That is understandable. Adventure stories usually leave their heroes at the point of their most magnificent victories – when they are made admirals, for example, or Prime Ministers, or when they win the heart of their beloved. That was the point at which their life’s path was finally set. We readers, too, are more interested in how they got there than in how they finished up. That is why writers rarely continue the story of their sailor hero into his old age when he is crippled with gout.
That’s not how it is with Christian saints. Their feast days do not remember their birthday nor the day on which they set out on their life’s work, but the day they died. On that day begins their new life with God, when they can help us in our needs, and we can see what it meant for them to follow Jesus until the end of their life’s journey. For Christians all endings are beginnings, and are more important than any triumphs along the way.
The Feast Day of Ignatius (31 July) invites us to turn our eyes to the 15 years after he was elected first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and particularly to his last few years in which he lived with serious illnesses.
He did not spend these years travelling and in hands-on building of new ventures, but in his office in Rome pushing chaos under the door as he faced crucial questions about the directions of the new Order. He had to put out bushfires, deal with the anxieties of popes and bishops, respond to increasing demands for Jesuits, encourage his companions in times of discouragement, and bed down a distinctive way of following Jesus. This was a hard ask: over those years Jesuits had grown from single figures to more than 5000. And among all these tasks, like a Vinnies member today, he found time to give time to people who were doing it hard through social contempt, homelessness or hunger.
His life can be caught in the thousands of letters he wrote over that time – formal letters to authorities of kingdoms and of church, business letters about foundations, letters of appointment and dismissal, letters of encouragement and of rebuke to his fellow Jesuits in their life journeys, letters of spiritual advice, and instructions on how to proceed in important missions. They represent the thousands of people whom his life touched. Not exciting work, but work that drew on all the experiences of his years of wandering, advising, and dealing with suspicion, hostility or exaggerated respect.
All that took its cost. He suffered from kidney stones, could be short tempered and demanding, and enduring his companions’ hero worship in which even intolerant behaviour was regarded as a sign of the saint’s wisdom. An attractive story told about him in this time was how he loved to go on to the roof where he wept as he watched the stars. The tears were surely of gratitude for the beauty and goodness of God, his habitual attitude. We might wonder, though, if perhaps they also reflected his joy at reaching this time of contemplation at the end of yet another day of unending toil.
In the end Ignatius defied any craving for miracles and long farewells when he died. We know of no memorable words spoken, no visions granted, no edifying farewells. He simply died in his sleep. Like so many of his followers he got on with his living and went to his death in undemonstrative faith. He was a saint but an unassuming one.
Note: 20 May 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of St Ignatius’ transformation from soldier into Ignatius the pilgrim. The Ignatian Year will conclude on 31 July 2022.
Image: St Ignatius Leads Companions in Vows at Day of Assumption – Getty Images